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Challenges and opportunities for freedom of expression in the networked environment

3. Connectivity and Code Layer

info: Submitted by Lisa Horner on Tue, 2008-06-03 16:59.

The principles:

a Communications infrastructure and protocols should be interoperable whenever possible.

b) Protocols governing access to public content should enable access for all people who want and need it.

c) Networks should be ‘neutral’ in the sense that the flow of content should not be subject to undue or arbitrary discrimination for monetary, cultural or political reasons. Controls should not be embedded in networks themselves.

Rationale and detail

a) Communications infrastructure and protocols should be interoperable whenever possible.

Interoperability refers to the ability to exchange and interpret data across diverse systems and components, for example the ability of a mobile phone user to connect to the internet, view websites and communicate with PCs. Interoperability can increase users’ choice of hardware, the functionality of hardware and networks, efficiency and innovation14. One way of encouraging interoperability is to ensure that standards (the blueprint or set of specifications that determine how hardware and software behave) are ‘open’ –democratically and transparently developed and managed and available for all to view and use. Open standards allow people to build new systems that are compatible with existing ones, encouraging interoperability, innovation and the adaptation of existing systems by users to meet their specific needs.

There have been significant moves towards interoperability based on open standards in recent years as a result of convergence around internet protocol. The free software and open standards movement is also gaining strength. However, major barriers still exist. These include resistance amongst manufacturers and service providers to a perceived loss of control over information, intellectual property and business opportunities. There is also a trend towards the production and consumption of closed hardware and software. One example is that the programmability and adaptability of personal computers (PCs) is being threatened by the production of closed hardware like iPods, mobile phones and Xboxes15.

Interoperability is often desirable for consumers and citizens, and in many instances businesses. However, requiring companies and service providers to make their hardware and services interoperable could undermine market incentives to innovate and expand consumer access to services. A careful balance between protecting innovation and advancing interoperability needs to be found by stakeholders. This should be based on a fair and transparent standardisation system, underlain by agreement that closed technology and networks should never:

  • Discriminate against certain groups, for example through prohibitively pricing technology that would enhance access and affordability for disabled groups.
  • Threaten innovation and competition through excessive dominance of the market and anti-competitive behaviour.
  • Be privileged in legislation and regulation over open systems.
  • Prevent access to content, applications or hardware that are necessary for participation in public life.

b)Protocols governing access to public content should enable access for all people who want and need it.

Over 90% of content on the internet is available in only 12 languages, rendering it inaccessible to people who are fluent only in the 6,000 other languages of the world16. However, internet-based communications have the potential to break down language barriers in ways never before imagined possible, for example through automated translation systems. Significant steps towards building an internet that supports a greater diversity of languages have been made in recent years. These include the development of Unicode, a system that supports a wide variety of letters and symbols outside of the Romanic script, and software that can translate and convert different scripts and alphabets. The non-Romanic languages of Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Arabic are now amongst the top 10 languages on the internet, and Japanese is now the most common language used in blogs17. Progress is being made by ICANN in developing a top level domain system that supports non-Romanic scripts, with the implementation of a system that supports eleven new scripts in 2008.

However, steps towards the development of a multilingual internet are not being made fast enough. ‘Balkanisation’, or the development of separate spheres of influence, is currently occurring on the web as countries are creating pools of content under localised domain names that are not directly administered by the global ICANN system. People who speak minority languages are rarely represented in national and international policy making, and are thereby effectively excluded from accessing, and participating in the production of, internet content. This increases the likelihood of languages falling into disuse, with accompanying loss of cultural knowledge, heritage and identity.

To increase the amount of content available in different languages, the protocols that applications run on need to be able to support these languages. The proprietary software models that currently dominate the market are less flexible than open source systems in allowing users to develop new language capacity for applications.

The use of certain systems and protocols can also effectively exclude other minority groups from accessing and participating in communications environments. These include physically disabled groups such as the blind and deaf. For example, subtitles are available for too few television programmes; too few newspapers are available in brail or audio format; and too few websites follow established protocols that allow applications to read websites to the visually-impaired. Inadequate progress is being made towards inventing, standardising and expanding access to protocols and systems that can increase accessibility and usability of communications for disabled groups.

c) ‘Networks should be ‘neutral’

The issue of ‘network neutrality’ has exploded in the USA recently. This was largely because some internet service providers proposed to prioritise certain packets of data travelling along their networks, according to fees paid by content providers. Such practice has the potential to undermine what some argue was a founding philosophy of the architects of the internet and a fundamental secret of its success - that the network should remain open with equal opportunities of use and access for all users18. However, the network neutrality debate is far from black and white.

Today’s internet is necessarily discriminatory as a result of the different kinds of data that are being transported across it. For example, service providers have to give priority to real-time audio and visual data over simple text to maintain quality of service and integrity of the content reaching the end-user. The internet therefore needs to be protected from arbitrary or purely profit-driven, anti-competitive discrimination of content rather than discrimination per se. Any discrimination of traffic should be transparent and is only acceptable to maintain quality of service for existing and new applications on the web.


14 Berkman Center (2005).

15 Zittrain (2008)

16 Unesco Babel Initiative data

17 Technorati (2007)

18 See for example Lessig (2001); Goldsmith and Wu (2006)